Our new columnist, Phil Dee, is desperately seeking a Ph.D. somewhere in the South West of England. But he knows that it's about more than research. His dispatches from the lab trace his quest to develop the skills which will take him beyond his doctorate and into the world of work.
In the laboratory I was failing and failing and failing again. The skills I needed to equip me for a life in research seemed utterly beyond my grasp. Worst of all, I had no idea what I was doing wrong. After achieving first-class honours in my biology degree 1 year earlier, I found this all rather sobering. This repeated failure made me redirect my attention to new possibilities. 'TEACHING, that's what I'll do!,' I decided. 'I'll plough through to the end of my Ph.D., then jack it all in for a nice cushy teaching job.' There were two things I didn't realise at this time. Firstly, just how easy it would be to get a teaching job. And secondly, just how un-cushy teaching is.
I decided to telephone the most local further education college I could find. With some trepidation I asked if they perhaps, maybe, on the off-chance needed a biology lecturer. To my utter amazement they did! And urgently! I couldn't believe my luck. Gingerly I told them that I had no teaching experience. 'You've got to start somewhere,' was their response. Then they hit me with the clincher--they would pay me £15 per hour! I accepted their offer to teach an A-level Biology evening class for 3 hours a week. What had I done?
Within a fortnight of my most excellent idea I found myself in front of a class of adult faces all eagerly awaiting my revelations on the wonders of biology. I had masses of material prepared, more than enough to last the 3 hours. Or so I thought! I ran out of material after 1 hour! My first lesson in how to teach: 'time flies'. I hastily sent them off for a coffee and rushed to the photocopier to prepare enough stuff to enable me to 'blag' my way through to 9 p.m. Phew! My first lesson over. One week later I was better prepared, only to discover that no one had understood a thing I had said the previous week! My second lesson in how to teach: 'Go slowly at first; very, very slowly'.
As the weeks rolled by I was offered more and more work by the college, all of which I (reluctantly) had to turn down as I knew my Ph.D. would suffer if I took on any more. I'd be working about 15 hours a week at college by now if I had accepted it all! Slowly the teaching became the easier bit--I realised this after one class when I went home for the first time without a splitting headache. What took the place of teaching-induced stress was preparation-induced stress. Much of the material hadn't been covered in my first degree, so I was literally reading it up one night and 'teaching' it the next. No one suspected a thing, I hope! I guess after my first degree I pick things up fairly quickly, but this aspect of the work is still the major hassle in terms of the time I need to set aside. It's fine if you are a full-time lecturer with at least some time to prepare during office hours, but I have to do it all in my own time. This makes the £15 per hour seem much less generous.
The students are well behaved (mostly), so little discipline is needed. I guess unlike teaching in schools you can appeal to their maturity when seeking to 'rein them in' during a lesson. My students seem to look up to me as a researcher (what a bizarre thought!). It has made me realise just how much knowledge I have accumulated over my years in academia, and how much jargon has become second nature to me. It is essential that you can think from a novice's point of view and are able to express complex ideas using simple words. You also have to spot when you've 'lost them'. Watch their faces and you'll soon tell if a) they haven't got a clue, b) they really need a coffee break, c) they're just plain bored by the subject matter. Needless to say, only b) has a quick-fix solution.
At the outset, I made it clear to the college that I would study for a Further Education Teaching Certificate. You can do this at your local college or by distance learning. The course is really quite straightforward apart from the 'sociological' jargon which, after years of studying science, I found quite difficult to interpret. I was also surprised to discover that I wasn't supposed to 'teach' my students. I was supposed to get them to 'learn'. I've discovered there's a subtle difference between the two. It's tough finding the time to devote to these extra studies, but I hope it will help me tap into a ready source of income when my Ph.D. funding runs out, if not the possibility of a full-time career. The pay in further education is worse than in schools and the holidays are shorter. To me, the potential lack of abusive behaviour from your class would seem to be the major compensation.
Back in the lab, my research skills have improved and the results are starting to flow in. Who knows, maybe it's due to the confidence boost I've got from teaching!